She has a rare spiritual beauty. But Deborah Kerr prefers to be known as the screen’s most versatile actress, not just t a “face”.
Unknown writter – 1940s
She is a snuffling, discontented wife in Vacation, From Marriage. She has played a nurse, a governess, a debutante, a Motor Corps girl in World War II, a nun. She is a general’s widow in The Hucksters, and the bitter, disillusioned wife in Edward, My Son.
“No audience has the faintest idea who I am,” says Deborah Kerr gaily. “‘Oh, you know,’ they say, ‘that Irish girl, or that homely English creature in a London flat, or that very dignified person who played opposite Clark Gable, or that middle-aged actress who can play young girls-or is she that young girl who can play middle-aged women? ‘ -“Who,”‘ you may ask, “is Deborah Kerr?” This is a purely rhetorical question for no one can forget her brilliant performances in American and English movies. The point is that Deborah changes completely with every performance she gives. And she is basically too career-minded really to care that she, herself, is not better known as a personality.
It began back in 1928, in the small town of Helenburgh Scotland, when seven-year-old Deborah had just returned from a performance of Peter Pam She perched on the mantel of the family living-room, convinced that she too could sail through the air, and took off. Deborah-and the bric-a-brac-landed with a crash! But her faith wasn’t shaken.
No one in her family-least of all Deborah herself-realized that it was this innate quality of “believing” that would one day make her a great actress.
It was soon after the great flying attempt that the family observed her making dramatic entrances and exits, wafing her arms as thoughshe were slightly daft. This went on fora few years, but instead of growing out of her passion for acting, she grew steadily -worse, until, at last she was suit to an aunt an ex-actress in Bristol who put her through a stiff course of training for the stage. By this time Deborah’s face was as limpidly clear as a woodland pond; her skin was like English roses with the dew on them; she had a quick-silver mind. Unfortunately, she was quite plump.
At this point she became convinced that she could be the world’s greatest ballet dancer. She won a scholarship at the Sadlers Wells Ballet School. All the instructors in the school were very short in stature and Deborah, well padded and 5 feet 7 inches tall, seemed gigantic. She began to stare questioningly into the mirror, and started looking for jobs on the stage.
Through a friend she was given a small part in the Open Air Theater season at Regent’s Park in 1939. Although she had almost no money, it was summer and playing Shakespeare under the stars was food for the soul, at least.
For a time she read children’s stories over BBC and had begun to get better parts in Regent’s Park when war broke over England. Deborah began to combine repertory work with war jobs, living at the Y.W.C.A. on 35 shillings ($7) a week and exposing her fresh young beauty to the vitiating air of producers’ offices.
But there was one burning moment when Producer-Director Michael Powell noticed her in an agent’s office. He spoke of her later as a plump young thing with a dream in her eyes -and wrote a bit for her into Contraband. The bit curled up on the cutting-room floor.
Soon afterward a friend invited her to an eventful lunch at the Savoy. Gabriel Pascal, seeing her at an adjoining table, came over and made his now famous remark: “Sweet lady, you have a spiritual face.”
An extremely rigorous war-time diet had stripped all the excess flesh from her young bones and had given her a slightly ethereal look; but as for being “spiritual”-she thinks it is much more likely that she was merely hungry!
Pascal was serious enough and invited her to his office to read for him. A man with a nose for talent, he instantly saw her as the Salvation Army lass, Jenny, in Major Barbara. Mr. Pascal was enchanted-and Deborah was in!
After a tong winter, suddenly it was spring. Other producers began to take notice. The awkward young fledgling with the big green eyes, rose-petal complexion and pudgy body had suddenly turned into something rarely beautiful and delicate. She played one supporting role as “Sally Hardcastle” in Love on the Dole and emerged a full and brilliantly luminous star.
Three films followed in 1941: Penn o f Pennsylvania, with Clifford Evans, Hatter’s Castle, with James Mason and Robert Newton, and Day Will Dawn, with Hugh Williams.
In 1942 came her biggest opportunity with The Life and Death o f Colonel Blimp, the best of her films to date and the one most responsible for shaping her career. She played three different women in Blimp’s life: a governess of the 1900’s; a county family debutante in the early 1920’s; a Motor Corps girl in World War II. She played them in Technicolor.
With the most beautiful eyes yet seen in England, a skin like country cream, and a smile that set little bells jingling; hair like spun gold, the makeup artists couldn’t improve on nature. In her case, it was really gilding the lily.
Of her long apprenticeship before she hit stardom, Deborah says, “I just knew that all I had was my ambition, so I went to work and did the best job I could. It was just a step at a time, as one learns to walk. Oh, I know, in America you expect your stars to emerge from obscurity as a butterfly bursts from its cocoon. It wasn’t that way with me at all.”
Colonel Blimp brought her to the attention of American producers, particularly at M-G-M. L. B. Mayer decided the Kerr girl was to be acquired.
At once a sound, like wind sighing through a clump of trees, were whispers heard all over Hollywood that L.B. had paid $250,000 for a share in an unknown English actress!
Meanwhile Deborah was touring the continent entertaining troops. In Brussels a young flying officer, one of the famous Battle of Britain heroes who had personally shot down fifteen German planes, kept hanging about.
He was handsome, debonair, the son of Sir Charles Bartley, and had set Deborah’s young, untouched heart afluttering. They fell in love. In September they announced their engagement and almost simultaneously Tony was sent to the South Pacific.